Skill Ontogeny Among Tsimane Forager-Horticulturalists

Eric Schniter, Chapman University
Michael Gurven, University of California - Santa Barbara
Hillard S. Kaplan, University of New Mexico
Nathaniel T. Wilcox, Chapman University
Paul L. Hooper, Emory University

This article was originally published in American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 2014. The link above is to the authoritative publisher’s version, as noted by the Economic Science Institute, and may reside behind a paywall.

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We investigate whether age profiles of Tsimane forager-horticulturalists' reported skill development are consistent with predictions derived from life history theory about the timing of productivity and reproduction. Previous studies of forager skill development have often focused on a few abilities (e.g. hunting), and neglected the broad range of skills and services typical of forager economies (e.g. childcare, craft production, music performance, story-telling).

Materials and Methods

By systematically examining age patterns in reported acquisition, proficiency, and expertise across a broad range of activities including food production, childcare, and other services, we provide the most complete skill development study of a traditional subsistence society to date.


Our results show that: (1) most essential skills are acquired prior to first reproduction, then developed further so that their productive returns meet the increasing demands of dependent offspring during adulthood; (2) as postreproductive adults age beyond earlier years of peak performance, they report developing additional conceptual and procedural proficiency, and despite greater physical frailty than younger adults, are consensually regarded as the most expert (especially in music and storytelling), consistent with their roles as providers and educators. We find that adults have accurate understandings of their skillsets and skill levels –an important awareness for social exchange, comparison, learning, and pedagogy.


These findings extend our understanding of the evolved human life history by illustrating how changes in embodied capital and the needs of dependent offspring predict the development of complementary skills and services in a forager-horticulturalist economy. Am J Phys Anthropol 158:3–18, 2015. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.